Harkema Builds A Better Block

March 10, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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GRANDVILLE — Chris Harkema is not a chip off the old block, nor is his business.

The concrete blocks his company sells may look at first glance like the standard blocks used by the billions in construction throughout North America, but they are different. They are green and a little sparkly — and they come in a variety of colors.

"Green" as in made with recycled material, and "sparkly" as in light reflecting off tiny chips of glass.

Harkema, CEO and co-owner of EPI Concrete Products on Chicago Drive in Grandville, estimates that last year the company sold 750,000 or more of its RenuBlok brand of concrete blocks, which contain recycled glass aggregate in place of much of the sand and gravel normally used in concrete products. This year he expects the total output of RenuBloks to be a million or more.

EPI Concrete Products is an affiliate of EPI International, a Denver firm that develops a variety of sustainable building products.

EPI Concrete Products began a little less than three years ago and now has annual sales of about $3 million, according to Harkema. Due to the expense of shipping concrete blocks, the RenuBloks are only distributed within a 200-mile radius of Grand Rapids, but Harkema is working to build a network of production/distribution centers throughout the U.S.

The blocks are actually produced next door on Chicago Drive, under contract by the Premarc Corp. The five full-time employees at EPI Concrete Products concentrate on collecting recycled glass throughout West Michigan and preparing the glass aggregate that goes into the blocks.

Harkema began his career in concrete products about 19 years ago, at age 15, working summers at Modern Concrete Products on Front and Leonard streets in Grand Rapids. A native of Byron Center, he attended Davenport College (now Davenport University) and also worked during college in sales at Shawmut Hills Honda on Lake Michigan Drive.

Later he was a plant manager with Consumers Concrete and then spent two years in sales.

"I think I've done about every job you can do in the whole system" of concrete products, he said.

Chris Harkema
Company: EPI Concrete Products
Title: CEO
Age: 34
Birthplace: Byron Center
Residence: Jamestown
Family/Personal: Wife, Tracey; two sons, ages 5 years and 6 months
Business/Community Involvement: Construction Specifications Institute, Local First of West Michigan, West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum.
Biggest Career Break: Working at Shawmut Hills Honda: "The exposure to the retail marketplace, contract finance, and leadership from individuals like Ken Blackport."

Most of what Harkema does now on a day-to-day basis is related to sales — but he has also become somewhat of an expert on waste management. In fact, he maintains that EPI Concrete Products is a “waste management company and a glass-recycling company."

Harkema has partnered with Kent County to haul away the glass brought to the county recycling stations by waste haulers and others.

Dennis Kmiecik, director of Kent County solid waste operations, said he is not aware of any other business in Kent County using recycled glass. Harkema approached the county almost two years ago, expressing an interest in the glass brought in by the recycling programs throughout the county. EPI Concrete Products has subsequently changed the process for glass recycling by Kent County — to the county's advantage, he said.

According to Kmiecik, before Harkema came along there was only a market for clear glass, and only certain types of glass. Kmiecik said the county sold the clear glass to a company in Detroit.

"If we were lucky, we broke even," said Kmiecik. But much of the time, he said, they were not lucky. Part of the problem was that although the county said it would only accept clear glass — mainly food containers — too many people would not sort their glass before putting it out in recycling containers for pickup.

"We still got a lot of brown and green (glass)," which county employees then had to sort out from the clear glass, said Kmiecik.

"Much of the glass we got went to the landfill as trash," added Kmiecik. Then along came EPI Concrete Products.

"They can take any kind: clear, brown, green, colored, windows, Pyrex," said Kmiecik.

So now Kent County accepts all glass and it does not have to be sorted. The result is that the amount recycled each year by the county has doubled — to 1,200 tons last year, according to Kmiecik. EPI doesn't have to pay for the county glass, but now the county doesn't have to send any recycled glass to a landfill, either.

"I'm losing less" money on the deal, said Kmiecik. "It's a nice program."

EPI Concrete Products uses recycled glass collected by several counties in West Michigan, and even some municipalities such as Charlotte, near Lansing. In some cases Harkema pays for the glass, and in others it's free for hauling it away. Price, if there is any, is determined by the volume of glass, the expense of getting it back to Grandville, and whether or not there is substantial "overburden," meaning other waste materials mixed in with the glass, such as paper and plastics.

It used to be that consumers were supposed to remove labels and lids from glass jars, before recycling, but that doesn't matter anymore. Harkema has invested heavily in sophisticated equipment that crushes all the recycled glass, and then runs it under a huge magnet that removes metal debris, which is also recycled.

"Once in a while, an old frying pan comes down the chute," said Harkema.

EPI Concrete Products also partners with other businesses in its efforts to recycle glass. General Motors, for example, provides scrapped automotive windows and mirrors.

Perhaps one of the more unusual partnerships has been with office furniture maker Haworth Inc. Last year, as Haworth began a $30 million "green" reconstruction of its world headquarters in Holland, Harkema was there to remove the old windows. The glass was recycled at EPI Concrete and is likely in the aggregate that went into some of the RenuBloks that will be used in the new headquarters building.

Harkema said architects and contractors working on a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design building project can get points toward LEED certification by using EPI Concrete products. Just recycling the windows from a demolished building can add to LEED points.

EPI Concrete Products works often with architects and designers at DesignPlus and Pioneer Construction, and can point to a number of recent building projects that incorporate RenuBloks. Several are on the campus of Grand Valley State University in Allendale.

The company is developing additional brands of recycled concrete construction materials. In addition to glass, it recycles fly ash from coal-fired power plants, and is working on a new type of aggregate it will sell to other producers of concrete products; one of the benefits of it is that it will be almost 95 percent recycled content and "approximately half the weight of our glass aggregate," said Harkema.

"We're probably one of the first in the country to promote glass aggregate in masonry products," he said.

He said his concrete blocks are priced no more than traditional blocks, but the use of recycled glass aggregate brings added value to what is otherwise "a commodity product."

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